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Book Review

Evaluating 30 Years of Feminism--Firsthand

NOT ONE OF THE BOYS: Living Life as a Feminist by Brenda Feigen; Alfred A. Knopf$26, 336 pages

October 09, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Women, like the working class, are not a minority. Yet throughout most of recorded history, they have been oppressed, exploited and intimidated. There is vast potential in the fact that women constitute more than half the world's population; even vaster potential in the hope that the underrated qualities generally seen as "female" (nurturing, compromising, not blowing people's heads off) may in time come to be valued more highly by the world at large.

Yet, for all its promise, feminism has suffered setbacks. Not only is there disagreement between two main schools of feminist thought--one committed to equality, the other celebrating women's differences from men--but there is also disagreement about which issues are most important: Day care? Abortion rights? Equal pay for equal work? Spousal abuse? Integrating all-male bastions? Eliminating female circumcision? Speaking out against violent pornography? Gun control? Should women have the right to take part in combat or should they oppose all forms of militarism? Should they have called for President Clinton's impeachment or rushed to his defense?

In her forthright and thoughtful memoir, Brenda Feigen, a key figure in the 1970s women's movement, offers a clear-eyed perspective on many of these issues. A 1966 graduate of Vassar, Feigen went on to Harvard Law School, where she was stunned to encounter blatant discrimination by some of the most esteemed members of the all-male faculty. The professor who later served as the model for Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase," she tells us, refused to call on female students, except on one day each term he designated as "Ladies' Day." Feigen's consciousness was not only raised, but raised to a pitch of righteous indignation.

Feigen filed lawsuits with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, founded Ms. magazine with Gloria Steinem, ran for state Senate in New York and ventured into the sexist world of Hollywood to produce an action film called "Navy SEALS." In her private life, she married a man who shared her feminist convictions, had a daughter, worried about child care, sampled lesbian sex and, eventually, in no way disparaging her heterosexual experience, settled down with a woman.

In many ways, the life recounted here has been a privileged one: When Feigen attends a conscious-raising group, John Lennon and Yoko Ono show up; when she seeks a job in the entertainment business, a founder of Creative Management Associates intervenes on her behalf. But even with her considerable advantages, Feigen finds Hollywood so misogynist as to make Washington, D.C., seem a feminist haven.

One less attractive feature of the 1960s protest movement--its preference for soft targets--is evident in Feigen's contrasting responses to two of the many challenges of her career. Dealing with the relatively civilized old boys who excluded women from classroom discussions, she plunged boldly into the fray. But faced with the ruthlessness of the movie industry, she backed down, fearful of losing her producer's credit. In her favor, one must say, she fully recognizes--and regrets--her failure here to have acted in accordance with her principles. In two later chapters, "Hollywood" and "Pornography, Feminism and the First Amendment," Feigen more than compensates for this lapse, drawing on her insider's knowledge and keen legal mind to argue against pornography, particularly the kind that incites violence. In no way prudish, Feigen has sensible ideas about how to draw the line between the erotic and the obscene.

A pragmatic woman of strong commitments, Feigen has little patience for the hermetic jargon of feminist academicians or the unrealistic goals of fringe groups. She disapproves of her feminist sisters who abandoned their principles to defend Clinton, a decision that, as she argues, was neither principled nor pragmatic. Clearly, the experiences Feigen recounts so vividly have formed her principles; and her principles, to an impressive extent, have informed her life.

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